The Government of Ancient Athens

Standard 1.1: The Government of Ancient Athens

Explain why the Founders of the United States considered the government of ancient Athens to be the beginning of democracy and explain how the democratic concepts developed in ancient Greece influenced modern democracy. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T1.1]

Explain the democratic political concepts developed in ancient Greece:  a) the "polis" or city state; b) civic participation and voting rights, c) legislative bodies, d) constitution writing, d) rule of law. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [7.T4.3]

FOCUS QUESTION: What Parallels Can We Draw Between Ancient Athens and the United States Government Today?

As a political system, democracy is said to have begun in the Greek city-state of Athens in 510 BCE under the leadership of Cleisthenes, an Athenian lawyer and reformer. Some researchers contend democracy emerged much earlier in the republics of ancient India where groups of people made decisions through discussion and debate (Sharma, 2005). 

Bust of Cleisthenes, the father of Greek democracy.
Cleisthenes, the father of Greek democracy |
"Cleisthenes Bust" by Ohio StateHouse

Democracy was not the only form of government among the city-states of ancient Greece. There was monarchy (rule by one individual who inherited the position by birth), oligarchy (rule by a small group), and tyranny (rule by a leader who seized power). In this context, the emergence of a democratic self-government - however limited - was a revolutionary development in world history for those who could vote did actively participate in setting policies for the community.

Only free adult men who were citizens – about 10% of the population – could vote in Athens' limited democracy. Women, children, slaves, and foreigners were excluded from participating in making political decisions. Women had no political rights or political power. Aristotle, in “On a Good Wife,” written in 330 BCE, declared that a good wife aims to "obey her husband; giving no heed to public affairs, nor having any part in arranging the marriages of her children."  

Hydria Vessel

"Hydria illustrating three women (ca. 430 BCE.)" by Dorieo is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
A hydria is a three-handled water vessel
Manner of the Kleophon Painter, Kerameikos Archaeological Museum in Athens

There were significant differences in women’s roles in Athens and Sparta. Athenian women could not own property nor did they have access to money, while women in Sparta could own property, inherit wealth, could get an education, and were encouraged to engage in physical activities. Explore a resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page Women and Slaves in Ancient Athens for a fuller comparison of women’s roles in Athens and Sparta.

Ancient Athens also depended on many other markedly undemocratic practices. Slavery was essential to the operation of society; slaves did much of the work of daily life as cooks, maids, miners, porters, and craft production workers. The practice of ostracism allowed citizens to vote a man into exile for ten years without appeal. Women had “virtually no political rights of any kind and were controlled by men at nearly every stage of their lives” (Daily Life: Women’s Life, Penn Museum, 2002, para. 1).

How did the political practices of ancient Athens impact how democracy became established in the United States? The modules in this topic consider that question in terms of the emergence of modern-day digital government spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the Olympic marathon on Native American runners, and the efforts of students and teachers to make school classrooms more democratic places and spaces.

    1. INVESTIGATE: Athenian Democracy and Digital Government after the 2020 Pandemic

    The word “politics” is derived from the Greek word “polis,” meaning "city." To the ancient Greeks the "city" was a geographic location, and also a political entity. To live in the city meant to be actively involved in making political decisions for the city. In ancient Athens, it was only male citizens who could vote that were allowed to engage in politics. Today, politics more broadly refers to the activities (including cooperation and conflict) among people that create and maintain a government.

    Pnyx Hill
    "Pnyx-berg2" by unknown author is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

    Athens' "first democracy," limited though it was, operated on two principles new in world history, namely that "we all know enough to decide how to govern our public life together, and that no one knows enough to take decisions away from us" (Woodruff, 2005, p. 24). That system had seven features that over the centuries became the foundation for people's efforts to create democratically self-governing communities, organizations, and nations:

    1. Freedom from tyranny
    2. The rule of law, applied equally to all citizens
    3. Harmony (people adhering collectively to the rule of law while accepting differences among people)
    4. Equality among people for purposes of governance
    5. Citizen wisdom built on the human capacity to "perceive, reason, and judge"
    6. Active debate for reasoning through uncertainties
    7. General education designed to equip all citizens for social and political participation (quoted in Sleeter, 2008, p. 148)

    The political practices of Athenian democracy are relevant to understanding how democracies function in the world today.  Although severly limited, there was civic participation, voting rights, and legislative bodies (the Assembly and the Council of 500). There was a constitution and an assumption of the rule of law presided over by magistrates and juries made up of citizens. More information about Athenian democracy is available at a resourcesforhistoryteachers wikipage on the Government of Ancient Athens.

    Digital Government During and After the Pandemic

    The origins of democracy in ancient Athens invites us to explore how democracy and the democratic government is evolving in today’s digital world and consider how smartphones, computers, and other interactive technologies might create new ways for citizens to interact with political leaders democratically, especially in light of the changes produced by the 2020 pandemic. 

    Page of the Town of Amherst Website, May 2020 during COVID-19 Pandemic

    "Page of the Town of Amherst Website"
    May 2020 during COVID-19 Pandemic
    Public Domain 

    The COVID-19 pandemic has increased efforts by governments to function digitally rather than through face-to-face meetings and interactions. Governments at every level are using mobile apps and social media platforms to communicate information to people about infection rates and appropriate public health practices. At local, state, and national levels, government meetings are being held virtually; in May 2020 the House of Representatives voted to allow remote voting and virtual hearings, ending a 231 year requirement that members be physically present to conduct business. Issuing a policy brief embracing digital government during the pandemic and beyond, the United Nations stated, "Effective public-private partnerships, through sharing technologies, expertise and tools, can support governments in restarting the economy and rebuilding societies" (UN/DESA Policy Brief #61). 

    Before the pandemic, the northern European country of Estonia claimed to have the world’s first digital government. The first country to declare Internet access as a human right for every person (Estonia is a digital society), 99% of Estonia's government services are online. In 2005, Estonia held the world’s first elections on the Internet; Estonian citizens can now vote online from anywhere in the world. Estonia is also consulting with the government of Ukraine on a “A State in a Smartphone” project where citizens can actively participate in government through electronic petitions, consultations, and elections (Ukrinform, 2020).  

    Estonia President Kersti Kaljulaid
    "Kersti Kaljulaid MSC 2018" by Mueller is licensed under  CC BY 3.0 DE
    The Estonian President in 2020 is Kersti Kaljulaid, the first woman and youngest person to hold the office. 

    Watch the following videos and consider whether digital technologies and smartphones are a way for more people to participate more fully in democratic government: How Estonia Built a Digital First Government, PBS Newshour, April 29, 2018 and Welcome to e-Estonia, the World’s First Digital Nation.

    What will a post-pandemic digital government look like in the U.S.? Everyone from elected policymakers to everyday Americans will be involved in answering this question in the months and years ahead.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Create an interactive Timeline
    • Analyze and Discuss
      • How might a digital government work in the United States?  
      • What would be the benefits? What issues might emerge?
    • Create a Meme, Editorial Cartoon, or Short Video
      • How might students more directly influence decisions and policies if there were a Government with a Smartphone inititiave at your school, in your community, and in the state and the United States?

    Online Resources for Athenian Democracy

    Teacher-Designed Learning Plan: The Government of Ancient Athens

    The Government of Ancient Athens is a learning unit developed by Erich Leaper, 7th-grade teacher at Van Sickle Academy, Springfield Massachusetts, during the spring 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. The unit covers one week of instructional activities and remote learning for students. It addresses both a Massachusetts Grade 7 and a Grade 8 curriculum standard as well as Advanced Placement (AP) Government and Politics unit.

    This activity can be adapted and used for in-person, fully online, and blended learning formats. 

    • Massachusetts Grade 7
      • Explain the democratic political concepts developed in ancient Greece: a) the "polis" or city state; b) civic participation and voting rights; c) legislative bodies; d) constitution writing; d) rule of law.
    • Masschusetts Grade 8
      • Explain why the Founders of the United States considered the government of ancient Athens to be the beginning of democracy and explain how the democratic concepts developed in ancient Greece influenced modern democracy.
    • Advanced Placement: United States Government and Politics 
      • Unit 1: Ideas of Democracy

    2. UNCOVER: The Legend of Pheidippides, the Heraean Games and First American Runners in the Boston Marathon

    Democracy was not the only accomplishment that modern day America owes to Ancient Greece. Greek thinkers made history-altering contributions in science (Thales), mathematics (Pythagoras and Euclid), medicine (Hippocrates), philosophy (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), and history, poetry, and drama (Herodotus, Thucydides, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes and Euripides).

    Athletic competitions, signified by the Olympics and its long-distance races, also stretch back to Ancient Greece. The Boston Marathon, the New York City Marathon, and the Olympic Marathon itself are among the most exciting events in sports today. Modern marathons have their origins in ancient Greece with the legend of Pheidippides, a messenger. 

    Statue of Pheidippides
    "Statue of Pheidippides along the Marathon Road"
    by Hammer of the Gods27 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

    During the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, Pheidippides is said to have run from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce a Greek victory, a distance of about 24.85 miles. Pheidippides’ long journey inspired the marathon race at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. Marathons for men have been run in every Olympics since then - a women’s marathon was added in 1984.

    The legend of Pheidippides invites exploration of a largely forgotten history of First (or Native) American Runners at the Boston Marathon, the modern world’s oldest annual marathon. Iroquois tribe member Thomas Longboat (or Cogwagee) won the Boston Marathon in 1907 and Tarzan Brown: Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island won the race in 1936 and 1939. Google Doodles celebrated Thomas Longboat's 131st birthday with an animation and a short biography on June 4, 2018. 

    Running is deeply part of American Indian culture and history. Jim Thorpe (the first Native American to win a gold medal and the greatest multi-sport athlete of the early 20th century), Lewis Tewanima, and Billy Mills all excelled as runners during the Olympics. Patti Catalano Dillon from Quincy, Massachusetts won the Honolulu Marathon four times in a row. You can learn more about running and sports among First Americans from the article “For Young Native Americans, Running is a Lesson in their own History.”

    In addition to the marathon, athletic competition in ancient Greece featured tests of individual skill and strength for men - there were no team sports or records kept of individual achievements. The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BCE.  Events included sprinting, wrestling, javelin, discus, chariot racing, and a fight to the death called "pankation." The ancient Olympics were abolished by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 393 or 394 CE (Frequently Asked Questions about the Olympic Games).

    Women were excluded from Olympic events with men. Unmarried girls were allowed to participate in their own athletic event - a once-every-four-years foot race during the Festival of Hera known as the Heraean Games. The first Olympic woman champion was Cynisca from Sparta who won the four-horse chariot race twice, in 396 and 392 BCE.  Monuments were built to honor her achievements. The modern Olympics began in 1896 and women were allowed to participate for the first time in 1900. In 2016, women were 45% of Olympic competitors (5,176 out of 11,444 athletes (Key Dates in the History of Women in the Olympic Movement).

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Create and Perform 
      • Use the following resources for a student-made TV news and sports show discussing how running and other sports have evolved in American Indian communities:

    Online Resources for the History of the Marathon

    Teacher-Designed Learning Plan: The Ancient and Modern Olympics

    The Ancient and Modern Olympics is a learning activity developed by social studies teacher Erich Leaper and University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty member Robert Maloy.  It is designed for in person, virtual or hybrid learning settings and addresses the following curriculum standard:

    • Massachusetts Grade 7: Topic 4/Standard 7
      • Identify the major accomplishments of the ancient Greeks

    3. ENGAGE: How Can School Classrooms Become More Democratic Spaces?

    While the word is often used, democracy is experienced far less often by most people in this country. “Although we think of ourselves as living in a democratic society," observed journalist Jay Cassano (2015), "we actually practice democracy very rarely in our everyday lives" (para. 1). 


    Image on Pixabay
    Free for commercial use, no attribution required

    Many think of voting for President every four years as their primary democratic experience, but practicing democracy also means exercising one’s rights through free speech, peaceful protests, petitions for change, consumer boycotts and buycotts, and other forms of civic participation. Democracy also means having a say in determining what happens in one's work, family, education and recreation settings. It is through vote and voice, people have opportunities to exercise control and agency over their lives.

    Worker cooperatives and worker/employee owned businesses are powerful, but not widely discussed example of democracy being practiced in American society. Cooperatives (aka co-ops) are organizations where “the people who own the businesses are the same people who work there” (Anzilotti, 2017, para. 4). More about worker cooperatives and workplace democracy can be found in Topic 6/Standard 10 in this book.

    In schools, can classrooms become more democratic spaces where students invest time and energy in designing their educational activities? Advocates for democratic schools believe students and teachers should organize schools so that both students and teachers have voice and vote about what happens instructionally, socially, and interpersonally in classrooms and corridors. In such democratic classroom environments, students are involved “on a regular basis and in developmentally appropriate ways, in sharing decision making that increases their responsibility for helping to make the classroom a good place to be and learn” (A Democratic Classroom Environment, State University of New York Cortland, para. 1).

    Democratic schools, contend Michael Apple and James Beane (2007), involve two essential elements:

    1. “Democratic structures and processes by which life in the school is carried out and
    2. A curriculum that gives young people democratic experiences” (pp. 9-10).

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Watch and Learn
      • Watch teachers, including Marco Torres, describe what it is like to teach democratically in school classrooms from the Democratic Classrooms page of Teaching Tolerance
    • Dialogue and Debate
      • How can students create more democratic schools and classrooms?  
      • How can students gain greater voice and agency in school classrooms and learning activities?
      • Do you agree or disagree with suggestions for democatic classrooms offered in What is Democratic Education?
    • Draw Connections to Personal Experiences
      • Think about your earliest memories of democracy - when you were in a situation where you felt your voice and participation mattered to making decisions.  
        • Was it in a family setting, at church, during youth sports, with peers, in stage or musical performances?
        • What role did you play in the process?
    • Conduct a Poll
      • Ask 5 other people for their earliest memories of participating in a democratic setting. List times when those interviewed felt their voice and participation mattered and when it did not matter.


    Online Resources for Democratic Schools

    Standard 1.1 Conclusion

    The United States system of government has its origins in the Greek city-state of ancient Athens. INVESTIGATE examined the nature and decidedly undemocratic elements of Athenian democracy, particularly in terms of women’s roles, before considering how today's interactive digital technologies may offer new ways for people to participate directly in government and decision-making. UNCOVER looked at Greek marathons and the histories of First (Native) American runners in the Boston Marathon and Olympic competitions. ENGAGE asked how school classrooms can become more democratic spaces where students have greater voice and agency concerning their educational learning activities.

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